SPARTANBURG, S.C. - Republican Mike Huckabee spoke from the pulpit yesterday, not as a politician but as the preacher he used to be, delivering a sermon on how merely being good isn't enough to get into heaven.
Huckabee is vying for support from the Christian conservatives who dominate the GOP in South Carolina, which will choose a Republican presidential nominee on Saturday. A former Baptist minister and Arkansas governor, Huckabee is competing for their votes with fellow Southerner Fred Thompson.
As in Iowa, where he won the Jan. 3 caucuses, Huckabee is rousing pastors to marshal their flocks for him. He pitches himself as someone who not only shares their views against abortion and gay marriage but who actually comes from their ranks.
Huckabee has the edge in South Carolina polls after his Iowa caucus win. Polls in Michigan, which votes tomorrow, have shown Huckabee running in third place, behind Mitt Romney and Senator John McCain of Arizona, winner of the New Hampshire primary last week.
Yesterday, Huckabee avoided politics entirely, instead preaching about humility and trusting in Jesus to open the gates of heaven.
"The criteria to get into heaven is you have to be not good, but perfect. That's the real challenge in it," he said at First Baptist North Spartanburg, a megachurch with 2,500 members.
"On that day, when I pull up, I'll be asked, 'Do you have what it takes to get in?' " Huckabee said. "And if I ask, 'Well, what does it take to get in?' 'Gotta be perfect.'
"Well, I'm afraid I don't have that. But you know what, I won't be there alone that day. Somebody is going to be with me. His name is Jesus, and he's promised that he would never leave me or forsake me," he said.
Asked by reporters later if he thinks only Christians will go to heaven, Huckabee declined to say. He often says that, as a minister, he joked that he doesn't even believe all Baptists are going to heaven.
"I'm going to stick to the things that make it critical for me to be president of the United States," Huckabee said yesterday. "I have deep convictions about who goes and who doesn't, but as far as who makes that decision, it isn't me, it's God. I'm going to leave that up to him."
He argued that the Constitution forbids a political candidate from being subjected to a religious litmus test. And he claimed to be the only candidate who gets asked about specific tenets of his faith.
However, Romney has also been asked about his Mormon faith. In fact, Romney got questions about his faith after Huckabee, in The
In church, Huckabee did not ask for votes or discuss the campaign, but senior pastor Michael S. Hamlet encouraged the congregation to vote according to how they try to live their lives, by the principles of Bible scripture.
"I'm going to tell you something, when you go vote, you ought to follow those principles," Hamlet said.
Huckabee's shoestring campaign has relied on pastors to encourage their flocks to vote.
"They can't mobilize for example, from the pulpit, get up and say to everybody, 'The bus leaves the church at 8 a.m. on Saturday.' It's a matter of urging them to use the influence they have to get their people out to vote, and I hope they will. Why wouldn't they?" Huckabee said.
Huckabee also is hoping to win over the Christian conservatives in Michigan. He emphasized his opposition to abortion during a meeting with about 100 pastors in Grand Rapids on Saturday, urging them to use their address books and e-mail lists to mobilize others.
He returned to Michigan from South Carolina to attend a service yesterday evening at the Apostolic Church of Auburn Hills, where he played bass guitar in the praise band.
In contrast to Huckabee, Thompson held no public events yesterday in South Carolina.